You would have to be made of stone not to have been moved by the reactions of so many young people to the transparent holiness of Pope John Paul II.
Like many Catholics, my wife Mary and I watched much of the coverage of World Youth Day 2002 from Toronto on EWTN. I can only compare the experience – witnessing such an overwhelming outpouring of respect and affection by the young for the old – to an opportunity I had in 1987 to cover Mother Teresa while she visited three Massachusetts prisons. At the women's prison in Framingham, the inmates stood on chairs, whistled and cheered wildly. The noise was deafening. It was exhilarating.
They see the reflection of God in Mother Teresa, I thought to myself at the time. It was a powerful moment. I knew I had been blessed just to be there.
At World Youth Day, the youth of the world, and we who watched on TV, saw that same reflection of God in the Holy Father. God the Holy Spirit, and he alone, could have caused such a reaction – just as he had years earlier when Mother Teresa visited inmates in prison.
But the youthful enthusiasm for the Pope was only a small part of the story. One of the most affecting bits of information to come out of Toronto was the news that more than 1,000 priests were hearing confessions. That announcement caused me to reflect.
What has happened to confession, the great sacrament of reconciliation? Communion lines stretch to the back of the church each Sunday – but, come Saturday afternoon at most parishes, there's hardly a penitent in sight.
Many Catholics who rarely or never miss Sunday Mass don't even bother to fulfill their Easter duty with the sacrament of reconciliation. Why is this so?
The reasons are many and too complex to mention here. However, at the top of the list is the lost sense of sin. Our consciences have become dull.
When I was growing up, on Saturday afternoon you stopped what you were doing and went to confession. And I mean most every Saturday.
By the time you sat down to the evening meal of hot dogs, baked beans and fresh white bread – French or Italian: soft on the inside, crusty on the outside – you expected to be asked: “Did you go to confession this afternoon?”
If you answered no, you were scolded and you made sure you went to confession the following Saturday.
The late Jesuit Father John Walsh, a marvelous priest, once asked, “What has happened to the wonder and mystery of the sacrament? Some of that has been lost.”
Even when I was a boy, I knew I was not confessing my sins to a priest, that I confessed them to Christ himself, who mercifully forgave me.
In those days, long lines gave you plenty of time to examine your conscience. When it was your turn to enter the box, you pulled back the curtain and entered a dark confessional. As you knelt, shifting your weight from one knee to the other, the world became not just quiet, but silent. You pressed your nose against the confessional screen and organized your sins in your mind. The anticipation made you nervous, sweaty, even breathless.
After receiving the sacrament and saying your penance, you felt as clean as a whistle. Your sins had been washed away.
Nothing, then or now, equals that feeling. When I was a boy, I remember feeling so joyful that I skipped down the front steps of the church.
As I grew older, particularly after the loss of innocence, going to confession became more difficult. Some sin had become serious matter. It took more courage to go to confession and it demanded more faith. Yet that feeling of being washed sparkling clean – of being made new – is just as real today as it was the day I made my first confession, a few days before my first holy Communion.
As I matured, I learned more about the sacrament, particularly its power of healing. We all need the forgiveness of the sacrament and we all need to be healed; we all need to break patterns and to avoid occasions of sin. I once heard a wise nun say that “conversions happen in a moment but last a lifetime.”
The sacrament of penance or reconciliation, which many of us learned to call simply “confession,” is a priceless gift. A jewel. Why would anyone deny himself such a treasure?
I don't know, but a huge number of young people didn't deny themselves the treasure in Toronto. Thanks largely to their enthusiastic embrace of confession, World Youth Day 2002 was a transcendently joyful event. It lifted up the entire universal Church.
At the beginning of a new millennium, with a new springtime of Christianity coming into bloom (despite the tunnelvision some have for focusing only on the weeds), it may well be the young who show all of us the way back to the confessional.
Wally Carew, author of Men of Spirit, Men of Sports (Ambassador, 1999), writes from Medford, Massachusetts.